A former nursing aide at the center of a federal investigation accepted a plea deal Tuesday after being formally charged in a series of suspicious patient deaths at a West Virginia Veterans Affairs medical facility.
Reta Mays pleaded guilty to seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with intent to commit murder in connection with the deaths of veterans at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Medical Center in Clarksburg.
The victims were identified in court documents as Robert Edge Sr., Robert Kozul, Archie Edgell, George Shaw, W.A.H, Felix McDermott and Raymond Golden.
Mays, first hired in 2015, was accused of "willfully," "deliberately" and "maliciously" administering insulin to patients who were not prescribed the drug. Medical experts say when a non-diabetic patient is injected with insulin, it causes the individual's blood sugar to plummet to dangerously low levels, which could be fatal.
Federal prosecutors are seeking a sentence of life imprisonment for each of the seven second-degree murder counts, and 20 years for the count of assault with intent to commit murder. A status conference update has been scheduled for October 20, and U.S. District Attorney Bill Powell says he expects a sentencing hearing to be scheduled on that date.
The United States Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia unsealed the charges Tuesday morning. For the past year, the inquiry has garnered national attention from top officials at the Department of Justice and Veterans Affairs Department as families of the victims have demanded accountability for their loved ones.
For Tuesday's hearing, the courtroom was filled with people who didn't appear to be observing social distancing but did wear masks. More than 300 other participants listened and watched the proceedings via Zoom.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Kleeh questioned Mays, who told the court she possesses a high school education and 80 college credit hours. She acknowledged that she has never held any professional license.
As federal prosecutors read details of Mays' involvement in administering insulin injections without authorization to each of the victims, she grabbed a tissue from a tissue box in front of her and wiped her eyes. Her voice was shaky as the judge posed questions to Mays about her understanding of the plea agreement.
The suspicious deaths prompted families of the victims to file wrongful death claims last summer, alleging systems failures within the facility that led to multiple similar deaths.
"You want to know what happened, you want to know who to hold responsible for it," Melanie Proctor, daughter of retired Army Sergeant Felix Kirk McDermott,in an interview last August. "You lose all trust in the system when this happens."
Proctor and Niehenke were the first of the families to file a wrongful death claim on behalf of their father, in a suit filed by attorney Tony O'Dell of Tiano O'Dell PLLC in Charleston, West Virginia.
It argues that employees of the VA Medical Center either knew, or should have known, of the wrongful insulin injections that were neither ordered by a doctor nor deemed medically necessary. It also says the hospital failed to thoroughly investigate each of the suspicious deaths and discover the cause, in order to prevent future deaths.
Both the criminal and civil complaints detail a thread of alleged failures at the hospital that allowed Mays to continue administering unnecessary insulin injections without detection for more than a year.
Court documents allege the hospital system failed to properly vet Mays for a nursing aide license.
The U.S. Attorney also says the nursing assistant at the facility was not "qualified or authorized" to administer medication, including insulin.
The Louis A. Johnson Medical Center provided a statement to CBS News, saying:
Our hearts go out to those affected by these tragic deaths.
Clarksburg VA Medical Center discovered these allegations and reported them to VA's independent inspector general more than two years ago. Clarksburg VA Medical Center also fired the individual at the center of the allegations.
We're glad the Department of Justice stepped in to push this investigation across the finish line and hopeful our court system will deliver the justice Clarksburg-area Veterans and families deserve.
Last year, a hospital spokesperson said they cooperated fully with the investigation and removed Mays from her previous role.
After the charges were announced, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said "justice is finally being served."
"As a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, I will not stop until we determine how this could have happened, and ensure it never happens again," he said.
Fellow Senator Shelley Moore Capito called the situation at the hospital "sickening."
"My heart breaks for the families of these veterans and I know I speak for all West Virginians when I say that we are astounded that something like this could happen," Capito said in a statement.